In the vast and disparate cultural world of the U.S.A., there’s little that can be said truly unites all people. There is always some point, disagreement or philosophical touchstone that divides people and keeps things from a perfect harmony. One thing that quite possibly might connect all people at all walks of American life, is a deep and nostalgic love for Jim Henson’s puppet creations, The Muppets. Initially created all the way back in 1955 for the Sam and Friends show, The Muppets branched out from early creation Kermit the Frog to include a roster of literally dozens and dozens of unforgettable original characters. Originally a staple of late-night television the pack of puppet-performed characters became household names when their famed variety program The Muppet Show began in 1975. From there it was a hop, skip and a jump to several feature films, Fraggles, countless TV appearances and total media saturation. Just about anyone, anywhere in the U.S.A. can recount at least one sketch, favorite character, song or quote from the misfit band of colorful characters. Something in the abstraction of the characters—coupled with their mirthful and constant efforts at humor—have won the troupe a place in the hearts of nearly all that see them. Truly, there are few who you could meet that have something negative to say about the merry band of Muppets.
It is with great pride that we were able to witness the debut of The Muppets at the famed Los Angeles venue, the Hollywood Bowl. Appropriately titled The Muppets Take the Bowl, the entire current roster of the beloved characters performed a full-length show accompanied by Thomas Wilkins and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. The show opened appropriately drawing together a wooden stage set a la the original Muppet Show opening. True to form, five large full-size monsters come forth from the side stage singing, “It’s time to play the music / it’s time to light the lights.” All of the beloved Muppets appear singing the various pieces of the opening until the closing refrain, “This is what we call the Muppet Show!” Incredibly, projectors light up literally ever bit of framework of the massive Hollywood Bowl stage, and the opening’s classic zoom-out featuring multitudes of Muppets singing in unison is repeated here through a combination of the front stage and projected visuals. The crowd cheers in unison. In the style of the original ‘70s Muppet Show Saturday Night Live alum Bobby Moynihan is announced as tonight’s special guest host.
From there, it’s a joyous cavalcade of the The Muppets’ most famous sketches and songs. Appropriately Kermit the Frog and stage manager Scooter start the show. Kermit muses how it’s going to be a great thirty-minute show before Scooter reminds him forcefully they’re blocked for the entire two-hour plus performance. Kermit frightfully asks Scooter what he should do to which Scooter responds with the first running gag of the night. He backs off the stage artfully dragging out the word, “Strettttttttcccccchhhhh.” Miss Piggy arrives to insist she have a great musical number next. Kermit and host Moynihan convince her to return later in the night to, “save the best for last.” Moynihan whispers to Kermit as Piggy leaves pondering how he ever dated her. Kermit bluntly changes the subject to a laugh from the whole crowd. From there, the night’s first musical number takes place. A giant prop of a car is slowly wheeled out from stage right Fozzie Bear and Kermit perched inside the car sing their classic number, “Movin’ Right Along.” The song is worked into a medley as a piano appears stage right and Rowlf plays a dead-on rendition of Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere.” When the song reaches its epic list of city names, Rowlf smartly sings the name of nearly every L.A. area city or suburb to a massive cheer. Finally, the medley concludes with a charming rendition of Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” featuring recent movie character Walter, Moynihan and a group of singing cacti.
Another incredible aspect of the show is the stupefying amount of pre-shot content they had ready to use as interstitials or accompanying footage for each performance. At this particular point, the character known as The Newsman comes on the massive screens flanking and backing the orchestra with a Muppet News Flash. The Newsman insists that someone present tonight is “planning to steal the show.” He is intercut with live video of random audience members who look simultaneously thrilled and surprised to be on the big screens at all. This segues perfectly into footage T’ing off one of the group’s most famous bits, Pigs in Space. Miss Piggy is joined by Captain Link Hogthrob and Dr. Julius Strangepork. The trio runs through parodies of several famous references and songs from classic science fiction movies (including the epic music and black monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey). Piggy humorously quips when seeing the monolith, “It’s just a big rectangle.” Eventually robo lawyers from the planet “I.P.” arrive spouting all sorts of vague legal rhetoric. Link commands, “Engage parody defense shield.” The group all decides to venture to the public domain universe instead.
Another vignette is narrated by Piggy’s makeshift assistant Uncle Deadly. He lists off Piggy’s attributes until the camera zooms in so close on her it’s pressed directly on her nose. Several other cute skits play out in several short spurts from there: one with mops singing the theme song to the classic musical Hair, some form of chase with the monster Sweetums and Moynihan in a bee costume set to “Flight of the Bumblebee and even a short tap dance routine on “Happy Feet.” When The Newsman hinted earlier someone was going to “steal the show,” he wasn’t kidding. The night’s most hilarious skit came next as conductor Thomas Wilkins was conned out of his director’s podium by a suspicious voice claiming a car with the license plate “I CONDUCT” was about to be towed. As Wilkins left the stage, the voice revealed itself to be none other than Pepe the King Prawn. Pepe rose from beneath the podium and immediately took control of the orchestra saying there needed to be “some spice.” What followed was a hysterical send-up of conducting as Pepe guided the orchestra using four hands and four batons. Wilkins returned to wrest control of the orchestra but only briefly as eventually he had to concede some degree of the arrangement to Pepe’s “spice.” It defies convention and words, but pretty much every moment of this was comedy gold.
Sam the Eagle arrived to disapprovingly besmirch the “nonsense” of the rest of the show to introduce the characters Wayne and Wanda. They made a decent attempt to sing the Broadway standard “Send in the Clowns” until a gaggle of clowns arrived and disrupted everything.
Kermit introduces a short, funny segment featuring his nephew Robin and a group of unnamed cousins. They make a pitiful (but hilarious) effort to sing “Hooray for Hollywood,” before being cut off. They concede as they exit that they couldn’t remember all of the words. From there, the video walls show a series of brilliant TV show parodies. The first of which is the beloved routine Veterinarian’s Hospital featuring none other than Danny Trejo. From there, another show-stealing appearance by Pepe entitled Keeping Up with the Crustaceans (an obvious send-up of the annoying antics of the Kardashians). Pepe is an absolute scream. Lastly, the Swedish Chef gets to rock an eye patch in The Walking Bread. He deftly dispatches an army of zombified bread before declaring triumphantly, “You’re toast.”
To end off act one—yes, all this happened within the first hour—Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem Band were brought out on a raised platform. They only played three songs, but wow, this could have been the whole show. They did spot-on renditions of “Can You Picture That?,” Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes’ “Home” and David Bowie’s “Suffragette City.” Dr. Teeth himself took the lead on “Can You Picture That?” but it was guitarists Floyd Pepper and Janice that charmingly sang lead on “Home,” playing each verse as a tender nod to their many decades journey together. On “Suffragette City,” they all took turns uttering the song’s many brilliant lines, drummer Animal getting the best moment at the song’s bridge to shout, “Wham bam! Thank you ma’am!”
Following a modest intermission, one of the night’s many vignettes with Statler and Waldorf played on the video screens. The infamous heckler duo was situated in one of the Hollywood Bowl’s box seats drinking wine. This particular time they commented on how nice it was to be out in the open air, before remarking the reason why was because everything tonight “stinks.” Taking a cue from the amazing viral Muppet videos from the early 2000’s Gonzo and three of his chickens appeared center stage flanked by a full choir. Together (along with Animal, Beaker, Pepe, Sweetums and Piggy) they did an epic, hilarious version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Pepe got the unforgettable line “Oh mamma mia, mamma mia,” while Piggy got to float above them all singing the song’s final words with a slight change, “Nothing really matters / anyone can see / nothing really matters / to moi.”
A brief parade highlighted some of the more obscure Muppets for the diehard fans in attendance and then Piggy gave a proper “hi-ya” to Moynihan due to frustration that her big number hadn’t arrived yet. Another short, Muppet Show-esque bit came next, a parody of “Blue Danube” called “Boo Danube.” This one featured a circle of ghosts and skulls singing the song’s melodies in “boo’s.” Wisely this was the point when one of the Muppet’s most beloved skits, Muppet Labs was wheeled out. This time Professor Bunsen Honeydew bemoaned society’s addiction to technology and social media. Beaker joyfully socialized on a tablet in front of him until Honeydew launched him into his version of “The Cloud.” This was a literal launch, firing Beaker into the stratosphere, perching him on a cloud where his documents, photos and hobbies literally hit him in the head repeatedly. Finally he fell back to the Earth but not before attracting a horde of Internet trolls, which then proceeded to chase him off stage.
Fozzie finally had his moment in the sun at this point in the evening. He was going to attempt to break the world record of most jokes told in two minutes. Naturally, in his haste Fozzie went through a hilarious batch of mistakes before making it out to the stage too late to even start one joke. He twice entered the women’s dressing room to screams, got lost and turned around, distracted by poppable bubble wrap, stuck in an elevator and even briefly ended up at the set of Jimmy Kimmel Live! with Kimmel and sidekick Guillermo. Next came another of The Muppets’ most famous bits: the incomprehensible Swedish Chef. The Chef was wheeled out with his full kitchen. Moynihan was brought out to serve as his assistant. The Chef immediately did a hilarious effort at concocting hot salsa. Misunderstanding Moynihan’s urging to go easy on the hot peppers, he promptly poured a massive bag of them into the bowl. He insisted Moynihan try the salsa, and while initially liking the flavor he began to smoke uncontrollably from their extreme spiciness. He ran off stage as the Chef again misunderstood the sounds he was making, thinking he was asking for chips, then dumping an entire bag of corn chips over Moynihan’s head.
No true comprehensive Muppets performance would be complete without the skit, “Mahna Mahna.” Without introduction, the two pink monsters with big tubular mouths (for those curious, the set list credits them each as a Snowth) immediately started chanting, “Do dooby do do.” The little man of only two words arrives to bark “Mahna! Mahna!” They playfully run through the song’s offbeat skat delivery before the little man runs out of the venue on a tour of L.A. He ends up at Pink’s Hot Dogs looking worriedly at the dog in front of him before grabbing someone nearby’s cell phone and calling conductor Wilkins to utter the final, “Mahna mahna.” For all it’s build-up Miss Piggy is woefully unrehearsed and her big number (an energetic take on Adele’s “Hello”) more or less features her being tossed around the stage like a beanbag. Scooter attempts to do a beat boxing routine but is interrupted by Bobo the Bear. He interrupts Scooter long enough to accidentally pull the plug on the stage lights.
Right then Kermit asks for a spotlight and the crowd looks on with awe as they realize what’s about to happen. Kermit is perched atop a log with a banjo in hand. He strums the opening notes to the timeless masterpiece, “Rainbow Connection.” Pretty much every person at the venue that has any concept of the song is singing along with a faint glint of melancholy in their eyes. One of the song’s writers Paul Williams is brought out to join Kermit for the second verse. Unfortunately, either Williams wasn’t clear on what he was supposed to do or couldn’t hear himself, as you could audibly hear his voice playing through the speakers but he looked confused and wasn’t lip synching. Still, the entire cast of the evening’s Muppets joined for the song’s finale, the tear inducing line, “Some day you’ll find it / the rainbow connection / the lovers, the dreamers and me.” At the song’s conclusion Crazy Harry arrives all too happy to pull an explosive switch. A wonderfully fitting way to signal the beginning of a lovely fireworks display atop the venue.
Finally, Dr. Teeth and Electric Mayhem return with the rest of the cast and the full choir. This time they do a dead-on rendition of “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Dr. Teeth takes the lead on vocals and the performance is almost a note-for-note, shocking recreation of Joe Cocker’s massively famous cover at the original Woodstock. It’s a breathtaking and worthy finale to a jaw-dropping night of entertainment. If there is any place beyond this mortal coil, Jim Henson is looking down with a giant smile right now.
This is all doubly impressive considering six puppeteers/voice actors literally control thirty plus characters throughout the night. The juggling of puppets and voices must be exhausting, but Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, Eric Jacobson, Matt Vogel, David Rudman and Peter Linz do it so effortlessly you would never know it wasn’t a cast of dozens and dozens of voice actors. If you have a chance to see this show, do yourself a favor. Stop at nothing and make sure to catch this live. This is heart warming on a profound level and is a realization that most of us never dared think would come to pass. It might be the definitive Muppets experience.
Kermit Photograph taken by Andrea McCallin at the Hollywood Bowl, provided courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association
Electric Mayhem photograph taken by Matthew Imaging at the Hollywood Bowl, provided courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association